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Christmas Eve Homily, 1991


The Night of Power


Let me read you the 97th Surah of the Koran. It commemorates the coming of the holy Word of God, the Koran itself, into the world on that first night when the Prophet Muhammad, meditating in a cave in Mount Hira, received the vision of the angel Gabriel commanding him to "Recite!" That recitation would grow into the great scripture of Islam, a book I have read many times. I read this brief passage to you in a Christian church and on this particular night because I believe it applies perfectly also to the coming of the Word of God Jesus into the world nearly 2000 years ago.

   Verily, We have caused It to descend on the night of power.

    And who shall teach thee what the night of power is?

    The night of power excelleth a thousand months:

    Therein descend the angels and the spirit by permission of

    their Lord for every matter;

    And all is peace till the breaking of the morn.

                                   (Rodwell's translation)

Christmas Eve is a night potent and pregnant with adventurous expectancy. One feels it in the air. Some great thing is about to appear, and every eye shall see it. It is as if the sky were filled with a building electrostatic charge. The electricity at length builds up to the point where it must be discharged. And suddenly the darkened heavens give forth a flaming bolt that arcs from heaven's crest to the earth below. Such are the heavens on Christmas Eve. Like the Virgin Mary in her ninth month, they are great with child, with the Word of God, who then issues forth like a thunderbolt from the Empyrean vault! As the Book of the Wisdom of Solomon puts it:

   While gentle silence enveloped all things,

    And night in its swift course was now half gone,

    Thy all-powerful word leaped from heaven, from thy royal throne

    into the midst of the land...

                                 (Wisdom of Solomon 18:14-15a)

"The Night of Power!" What a phrase! I borrow it from the Koran, but it is already implicit in the title of a familiar Christmas carol, "O Holy Night." Because, you see, originally "Holy" did not carry the connotation it does for us when we hear the word today. Originally it did not refer to moral rectitude, moral perfection. At first the Holy referred to the sheer otherness of the Divine, the terrible gravity of its presence, that which set Moses and Isaiah atremble, stammering the words, "Woe is me! For I am undone!" The holiness of God was that which caused him to say to Moses, "Man shall not see me and live!" A Holy Night was a night of uncanny awe and descending power. When the Unknown God descended with thunder and lightning on Sinai, it was a holy night, and a night of power.

And though the lightning of the divine word struck gently, in a womb, in a manger, in swaddling clothes, it struck nonetheless. The once-far-off had come near. That of which no mortal flesh might abide the seeing had appeared in mortal flesh for all to see! It was a night of power, a holy night.

Children know better than adults that Christmas Eve is still a night of power, as they can scarcely sleep for the knowledge that a great boon from the sky will descend upon them that night. All a child knows is that Santa will descend the chimney, but there is considerably more to it. Do you know what the myth of Santa really means? Yes, there is an esoteric significance even to Santa Claus! If you know your Joseph Campbell, this will not sound strange to you. First, who is Santa? Historically he is Saint Nicholas of Myra, a fourth century bishop who loved children and gave them gifts. But our depictions of him reveal that he has taken on the shape of the Elder Dionysius, as Dickens depicts the Spirit of Christmas Present in A Christmas Carol. And what are the gifts that this divine apparition brings? They are the blessings of the eternal realm. Sometimes artists show Sants'a sack as woven of dark blue with stars and moon signs embroidered on it. This is why. He brings the gifts of heaven. And he brings them from the world above, symbolized by the roof. He brings them down the chimney, which symbolizes the universal mythical idea of the axis mundi that connects heaven and earth. So the myth of Santa Claus, far from being some secular substitute for the Incarnation, is actually quite a profound symbol of the Incarnation! And to children it communicates the thrill of anticipation that we adults have lost. They know, though perhaps they cannot truly explain, the power of this night.

When the calendar brings round again this night of power, it is right to anticipate the gifts of the morning! If you approach them in the spirit of which I have spoken, every present you tear open at tomorrow's dawn can be a sacrament and a reminder of the uncanny gift that appeared when the heavens discharged their burden that night nigh on to two thousand years ago.




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